Reviews by Wade Clarke
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* I wrote the following review of Final Girl for my blog upon the game's initial IFComp 2013 release. The game is no longer available for tech reasons, and may not become available in its original form again, so I've left this review 100% as I originally wrote it. I'm not sure that there are/were any specific solutions to the game that could be 'spoiled' by what I've written, but that said, this review looks extensively at the content and mechanics.
Final Girl is a highly innovative horror-thriller delivered via the StoryNexus platform. The player takes on the role of a teen girl who must identify a masked staple gun(!) killer in the wake of a cabin-in-the-woods-vacation massacre of her friends. I haven't played anything quite like Final Girl before, and while some of that will be down to me never having used StoryNexus before either, it's also clearly down to the game itself. I've not seen a game manage horror genre microscopy like this before, with stats like Squick, Terror, Exertion and Badassery. You even need to manually control your out-of-of-control breathing. The whole thing is framed as a slasher flick, and there are some touches of meta level commentary, but they don't come at the expense of the effect of the core story. As it is tense and gruelling to be the final girl in a horror film, it is tense and gruelling to make your way through this game. This is why I find the author's 'send up' description in one of his blurbs (though not the other, and I prefer the other) somewhat off target.
(The other day I read that a term emerging to describe a variety of ironic storytelling less aggressive and more affectionate than postmodernism's is 'metamodernism', but since I've only heard it once, I'd best not harp on it.)
It may be possible to complete Final Girl in under two hours but I died at around the two hour mark, then accidentally conceded my death, losing all my progress. Well, I'm pretty sure I lost it. The trouble with StoryNexus is that there isn't one piece of freaking documentation for players. While working out how to play was a broadly intuitive experience, finer points like 'Is there an undo? Can I save? Do I need to save?' were all left blowing in the wind. Maybe some veterans can chime in here.
The upshot is that Final Girl is a substantial game with some demanding elements, and it might take you to the two-hour mark or beyond. You'll also need to create a StoryNexus account or log in via Facebook or Twitter to be able to play. It's absolutely worth doing these things, unless you hate horror, because this is an unusual and surprising game. It also has an attractive visual style and an effective audio soundtrack. And more than once it says: "You no longer have any of this: 'staples in your face'". Low level spoilers ahead.
The term Final Girl, describing the lone female survivor at the end of many a horror film, was coined by Carol Clover in her book of horror film criticism "Men, women and Chainsaws". When Final Girl, the game, started with what appeared to be the final scene of a slasher film, I was disappointed with both of the trajectories I anticipated. I thought that either (a) the game was going to cut away from this final scene back to the very start of the story, one of my least favourite filmmaking devices, or (b) the game was just going to be really short and end then and there.
The first surprise of Final Girl was that neither of these things happened. The scene ended with the apparent death of the bad guy, but then the debriefing just kept going until a new investigatory story began. And this story becomes the game, interspersed with flashbacks to the prior story which led to the first scene. So the game's title is a good one. Final Girlness is normally a state acquired by a film's end. In this game, you begin as the final girl, fully formed and already possessed of a degree of savvy – which you'll need because as you'd expect, the killer isn't really dead, and you need to work out who he or she is.
StoryNexus play is based around cards. In Final Girl, these represent locations you can explore. To play certain locations you'll need to have already played particular cards, acquired certain items or set certain stats. Conditions like these can also apply to actions which might appear on the screen. To be able to move, you might need to rest to lower exertion. To do something particularly cringeworthy, like examine a corpse, your Squik level might first need to be reduced, or you might need to take a deep breath to reduce your fright levels. This micromanagement is a good match for the minutiae of horror films the game is simulating, because they're all about microscopic detail: a foot trying to not squeak on the floor, someone hiding in a closet trying to hold their breath, a door handle being turned as slowly as possible, etc. In response to your decisions, the game produces a ceaseless and fascinating parade of cards, badges, icons, skill updates and status reports. If you get better at something like using a pair of pliers, you'll be told exactly how you just got better at using them, whether you learned from fumbling or whether you learned how to wield them with sweaty hands.
Amidst all of this mechanical fun there's still a mystery which needs solving. You went to the cabin by the lake for a vacation with a dozen friends. Where are they now, and is any one of them the masked killer? Flashback scenes round out your relationship with each of these horror archetype teens. So much of this game comes in short stabs of prose, but these slightly longer memories are well written and do a little for each character. They also allow you to act upon the knowledge gained from them back in the present.
The lone element of Final Girl I disliked was the ubiquity of the killer. He (or she or it) attacks you again and again as you explore, and it's a time-consuming and no-gain encounter each time. This kind of ongoing harassment of the player is a pretty common stress tactic in horror games, but it's not handled well here. I suspect its random occurrence rate has been set too high, and similarly, too much of the encounter itself is down to 50/50 luck. That said, it is kind of StoryNexus to either explicitly tell you the odds of success of an action you're about to take or to give you a broad estimate of your chances in words (EG 'nearly impossible').
Dying and accepting your death leads to a game over screen with a movie review assessment of your playing style. This is the most overt display of the game's meta film material, though there are scattered in-game jokes as well. However, Final Girl walks the walk so well, the commentary comes across mostly as a fun addition. The game's act of quoting so many slasher films in its performance is its major gesture, a much stronger communication delivered at a more fundamental level. This is an excellent horror game with a sense of fun, but which doesn't skimp on tension or grizzliness either. It's got a few grindy elements, but with the exception of the repetitive run-ins with the stalker, I think they help make the experience what it is.
(I originally published this review on 22 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 25th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Fish Bowl is a short and effective horror piece in which you play sozzled beachcomber Larry Wyndham, a man who wakes up in his shack one day to find that a dusty fishbowl has materialised atop his three-legged dresser. The game is atmospheric with the whiff of sea horrors and sticky dead things, and it's quite a good character piece as well, evoking your awareness of Larry's constant fatigue and salty decrepitude. There are some bugs and oversights about but none that really impeded my play.
Larry's opening narration suggests that he's a guy who stumbles around in something like a semipermanent hangover. When he can't remember the previous night or recognise the fishbowl, these are immediate motivations for the player to start investigating Larry's surroundings. Doing so induces weird intrusions of memory and flashes of conversational static, though I wasn't crazy about the presentation of the latter. On the topic of presentation, the games sports some indented paragraphs. They look quite nice and I'm surprised IF games/authors don't think about this style more often, but I suppose the tradition that it is more helpful to leave an entire blank line between different chunks of information is well established for good functional reasons.
I read other reviews of Fish Bowl which reported over-awareness of its linear nature, or of its mechanism of containing the player to the present location until they perform certain tasks. The game is basically linear and it does contain the player to make sure they get everything they need from each of its few locations, but I didn't perceive either of these qualities in a negative light. The more character-based and naturalistic a game becomes, the more I fear that it will let me do something stupid like walk right down the beach when all the important things I need to attend to are back at my shack. I think Larry is written clearly enough that his thoughts can direct player effort to where it needs to go, and that some of the blocking in general is pretty natural. For instance, Larry's mini-rant to himself which prevents him from leaving the area in front of the shack without (Spoiler - click to show)burying the dead cat. I also don't mind repeating entry of a command when it very clear that the same action is the one that needs to be performed again – for instance, typing GET BOTTLE, seeing the bottle float further out of reach in response, then entering GET BOTTLE again. I think Fish Bowl is consistently good with this kind of thing.
Thoughts on the finale: (Spoiler - click to show)After you trigger a weird and unpleasant series of memories and images, and try and fail to retrieve the bottle from the ocean, you end up back in your shack, ready to wake to a day which is much worse. The revelation about your situation, confirmed by your supernatural answering machine, arrives all at once, and contains some elements that you might have vaguely guessed at by now as well as unexpected background information about you actually being a spaceship pilot infected by some kind of sea monster. Your various memories now make sense and the props you have been dealing with for the past two days are revealed as masking hallucinations. It's a creepy outcome, a bit Ray Bradbury and a bit H.P. Lovecraft, especially the final image of Larry slithering back into the ocean. And I was able to reach it without too much trouble. Fish Bowl's story plays pretty well now, and could play even better if the text output was tidied up, the feedback messages were coralled so that they don't sometimes appear in the wrong order, and missing nouns were implemented.
Dracula is an exciting, garish and highly confounding 95% text adventure which was released for the Commodore 64 by CRL in 1986. It was the first of a series of similarly themed horror adventures by Rod Pike (and later, other authors) including Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dracula broadly follows the events of Bram Stoker's novel and remains highly regarded in C64 circles to this day for a multitude of reasons, sensationalism amongst them. The non-text 5% of the game consists of gory digitised images which are displayed when the player meets one of the game's many violent ends. The game deliberately courted the attention of the British Board of Film Censors, and got it; it was the first game in the UK to receive a 15 certificate. The game's producers admitted they had wanted an 18 rating.
"Their claws bury into my flesh! They beat their wings on my body while their beaks tear into me! They are tearing me to pieces!The above passage is typical of the game's thrilling tone of demise, and after each death the player is treated to a SID chip rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
ARRGH!! MY EYES!! NO! THE PAIN.. I CAN'T STAND THE PAIN! I CANNOT SEE!!"
While all of these flourishes are inseparable from the game's intense atmosphere, they aren't the primary elements of what, it must be remembered, is an adaptation of a classic novel. The game puts the player into the shoes of two of the novel's heroes, Jonathan Harker and Doctor Edward Seward, and presents puzzles across a wide range of contexts: Good old-fashioned obstacle removal by useful object, observation and exploration, warding off Dracula and his minions and, perhaps bizarrely, the testing of social and domestic common sense.
The game is frequently unfair, with an inconsistent approach towards what the player knows versus what his/her character knows, lengthy and attractive room descriptions which are nevertheless quite misdirective, plenty of unheralded and undoable deaths, and countless incidences of time-based sequences in which you have to start typing WAIT repeatedly to achieve crucial aims. Considering all these difficulties, I was surprised by how enjoyable I found Dracula, and I realised that the game's mitigating circumstance is that for two thirds of its length, it is almost entirely linear and episodic.
If you've been dropped off by coach at Dracula's Castle, and you're standing in front of a locked door and there are no other exits, what else is there to do but assault your current location with every verb and noun you can think of? I discovered in playing Dracula that I don't mind brute forcing a game so long as the story is exciting and the process isn't querulous. Many stretches of this game involve just getting through one or two rooms at a time using only observational skills or objects that are immediately at hand (okay, and at times, desperate illogic). What you don't have to worry about at such times is whether you failed to pick up some important item twenty rooms earlier. On the other hand, what you do have to worry about are the game's assumptions about your character's knowledge, abilities and inventory, as these change without warning throughout the adventure.
A tiny first room (Spoiler - click to show)spoiler: In the game's first location, your path into the inn is blocked by a drunk coachman. Checking your inventory shows that you are carrying nothing, not even money, but the solution you must dredge up is PAY COACHMAN. You might say to yourself, 'Fair enough, I can now assume I carry money around with me,' and the assumption holds true for awhile as you lavish various Transylvanian yokels with your Earth dollars. But in a later chapter of the game, your money starts off in a coat which you aren't wearing, and you won't be able to pay people until you have noticed this, taken your coat from your chair and rummaged through it.
A less nitpicky observation is that despite the fact that you get to play two very intelligent men in this game – or at least one very intelligent man plus Jonathan Harker – there will be times when both men are capable of acting like imbeciles if they do not receive your explicit directions to the contrary. The game's wavering treatment of the entity that is 'me' certainly caused me to reflect on what what actions I expect should be automatically taken for me during a text adventure, based on the qualities of my character in such games where I am playing a character with a pre-existing background and disposition (like Dracula) as opposed to games where my character is entirely a cipher for action (like Zork.)
The silliest incident along these lines in Dracula occurs when you are playing Doctor Seward and need to catch a train to Stratford. (Spoiler - click to show)Having purchased a ticket, you then step south onto the platform. As often happens in this game, the room description does not mention any of the exits. Most of the time you can only find these by trying to move in every direction in turn. So you dutifully wait for a train to arrive, then board it. To paraphrase what happens next…
"You caught the train to Folkstone. You lose."Apparently the doctor is so klutzy as to be unable to board the correct one of two trains from his hometown station without player input, though he oversees the running of an entire mental asylum for his day job without the same. What the player must do here is bump into every 'wall' in the original platform location, find that there is a path to another platform and go and wait there, despite the fact that neither platform is labelled. It pays to save often in Dracula because you never know when another strange game-ender like this will crop up.
The game's prose is often uncharacteristically rich and lengthy for a text adventure from this period, even if the author misuses apostrophes. His punctuation mistakes don't matter because the perilous tone and content are well delivered, and the compelling writing places you thoroughly in the shoes of each character. The prose is also delivered in a gothic red font which definitely helps to create the game's particular atmosphere, at least for those whose eyes can stand it. Even in the game's heyday, hackers released patches which allowed players to use a more basic font. Different kinds of text are colour-coded, marking out objective description, your own thoughts, other characters' dialogue, etc., and this feature provides visual interest and clarification. The game's parser comes across as fairly opaque, simply because the game is so episodic that all the vocab you might struggle to guess is only relevant for a screen or three at a time.
It's hard for me to think of any other text adventure which trespasses so often against sense, logic and fairness, but which has remained engrossing to me. Dracula benefits from the qualities of Bram Stoker's novel, maintains the book's fearful tone in its prose and recreates some of its most memorable sequences, such as Harker's imprisonment and escape. The game presents mostly as sequences rather than as an open environment, and this seems to be the key to making its often inscrutable puzzles work. The player must doggedly persist with minimal cues to claw his/her way from one dangerous scene to the next, bashing against the walls to find the exits and turning to features in the environment which even the game itself suggests are useless, like a cupboard described as 'totally empty' which, predictably for Dracula, isn't.
Dracula demonstrates that there can be unexpected benefits to having a linear structure in a text adventure, and its decided confusion towards the ideas of character and agency is at least thought-provoking. It knows scary and is reverent to its source material. It is also highly irrational, probably impossible for any modern player to complete without the walk-through, and not a place a newcomer to older adventure games should start, fans of Stoker's book excepted. I believe, however, that anyone who does play Dracula today will be able to perceive why the game is well remembered.
* In 2003-2004 some Inform users remade Dracula using this modern Interactive Fiction system, an impressive feat. In the way of fidelity, the remake offers a choice of Commodore 64 or Amstrad colour schemes, and in the way of niceties it offers cleaned up text formatting and the inclusion of features like UNDO. Strikes against the remake are the absence of the original music (replaced by an extremely dodgy Bach MOD) and the replacement of all the original graphics, except for the title pages, with uninteresting 3-D renderings. The new version is undoubtedly easier to play but it loses the specific aesthetic effects of the Commodore 64 hardware.
Hints came early in The Black Lily that its narrative and subject matter would be following the trajectory of a giallo. The original giallos – yellow-spined Italian mystery novels – morphed into an eponymous genre of Italian thriller-horror-whodunnit films from the 1960s onwards. The films are often graphically violent, sexually charged, visually fetishistic and filled with histrionic characters and extreme psychology.
My familiarity with giallo established some expectations I had of The Black Lily that were helpful in understanding it, but the game turned out to be far subtler than its cinematic counterparts; actually, it's quite elusive. It is an elusive version of a kind of story known for flamboyance rather than subtlety, and certainly novel in this regard. The game's 1975 setting is probably also an extension of its giallo aesthetic, since the 1970s were the heyday for giallo films.
The Black Lily's protagonist narrates in the first person, the game alternating passages set at home in the present with past tense memory episodes the PC willingly triggers by looking at pictures of women in a photo album. My own reviewing coyness (what kind of protagonist is the protagonist?) is both in aid of preserving the game's mysteries and an extension of its deliberately evasive narration. The PC presents a vain and polished front but tries to slide around introspection of the kind IF often prompts via commands like EXAMINE ME or INVENTORY. Nor is the PC comfortable with the game's ubiquitous mirrors. The only thoughts pursued with passion are those about women, usually intermingled with visions of a black lily. These thoughts arrive frequently but suddenly, and explode with a galvanising intensity, and even more exclamation marks than the game normally uses.
The Black Lily gives directions on the way through that show the author has clear ideas about how players will be interacting with it. For instance, it specifies moments when it's important to save, and specifies from the outset that it might take multiple playthroughs to work out what's going on. Giallo-armed as I was, I felt I only half-understood what was going on when the game ended, but I also didn't feel great trust in the experience I'd had that the game would round that understanding out too much if I did replay (which I did, from various save points). For instance, there is a score system in place, but points are few and far between, and tend to be found in a blundering fashion, sometimes at fringes of the terrain. It's hard to feel them as a measure of progress or even interpret what kind of progress they are measuring. At least not for awhile.
I'm very into the psychology and horror terrain that the Black Lily is working, especially via the giallo prism, but the game is probably a bit too reticent to make most players feel confident about their interactions with it. It's fascinating to explore the first time, but not too fascinating. I spent too much time thinking: 'Why was that? What's that character? What just happened?' It's hard to be pulled into a story when your first degree comprehension of it is so gap-filled. The Black Lily is deliberately tough about offering ways in. There is a sophistication to be appreciated here if you are prepared to dwell on the material for long enough, in spite of some of its scantness. Perceiving the sophistication slowly is probably not as satisfying as being able to feel it in a lived way while playing the game.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)
This is how I like my vampires: Solitary, dangerous and with vile motivations. (As opposed to ubiquitous, shiny and Mormonesque.)
Admittedly Martin Voigt, the anti-hero of Darkiss, isn't as powerful as a vampire usually would be, but that's because the good guys previously killed him, leaving him with the inconvenient side-effect of weakness. The player's job in this classically styled parser adventure is to get Martin back into fighting, biting shape.
Darkiss was originally released in Italian in 2011. The IFComp 2015 version is a fresh translation into English. The game is puzzly, robustly implemented and relishes the protagonist's intent of evil vengeance. As might be expected, it's also just slightly off in some of the translation, but the core translation is resilient. The off notes don't affect game mechanics or player understanding, just the ideal reading of the prose.
The game is principally set in Martin's lair, into which he's been barricaded by both magical and folkloric means. The puzzles mix magical and practical solutions. Collecting the props needed for them requires quite exhaustive examination of the room descriptions, and for this reason I was glad of the hint system.
The lair's familiarity to this long-lived creature is a good mechanism for triggering anecdotes and memories from the past. Martin moons frothingly over his torture chamber and sadistic treatment of previous victims, while less exciting stuff – like the trick to getting through a certain door – is correspondingly less easy to recall, and thus decently excused in the story.
The game's overall feel is one of a wicked romp, though it's obviously not without some seriousness, too. The scenes in which Martin recalls past loves like Lilith from the painting, or Sabrina from the white coffin, are probably the most resonant and Anne Ricey. It's unusual to have a character so plainly evil and bloodthirsty, yet strangely endearing, at the centre of an adventure, and to play from the villain's point of view in general. The anchoring of this experience in a solid parser puzzler makes it an entertaining one.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
The Cardew House is a short parser adventure of typical mechanical puzzling in a haunted house. It could be said to be of Ectocomp style and hasty Ectocomp or slightly-better-than-speed-IF quality, and it doesn't have any surprises up its sleeve that would warrant anyone already uninterested in the basic premise from trying it. As the author's declared first or equal first Inform game, it's simple and rough and wasn't tested, but at least it has focus and a degree of technical soundness.* (* excepting its habit of just killing the interpreter where it stands whenever the game ends, which strikes me as unsound.) If you play, save the game before taking any particularly exciting actions; there's no undo from a game over.
The introduction tells of cruel Old Man Cardew, he who so aggravated all his neighbours and kin that somebody eventually shotgunned him in the head. Cardew's daughter disappeared, too, but nobody really knows the whole story. Enter you, foolhardy explorer of... The Cardew House. Note that I am going to arrogantly say that I've expressed this in a more exciting fashion than the game does.
Something you'll notice once you enter the house, and which you'll be aware of before you enter the house because the author mentions it in his introductory spiel, is that the lights in the rooms randomly turn on and off. I actually found that the reports about the flickering from adjacent rooms, and the business of me turning things back on, was quite atmospheric. I'm still relieved the author set things up so that the PC will turn lights on by default (an option you can deactivate) because, as he correctly anticipated, it would have made the game super fiddly if you had to do it all manually. The lighting atmos, in tandem with other random sounds and moans, makes the game a tiny bit bumps-in-the-night creepy.
One prop has a good attention-drawing schtick but mostly there's a lot of implementation oversight. Some props, like the kitchen cupboard, have fairly classic guess-the-verb issues attached to them. On the plus side, the hint system gives hints for the room you're in, so it tends not to spoil too much, and you can toggle it off again before you move to the next room.
The denouement doesn't really explain all of the implications of the game's introduction. (Spoiler - click to show)So Betty was buried under the house, but who shot Cardew? Did Cardew shoot Cardew? What about all the black magic stuff and the pentagrams? Fortunately this game is short enough that I wasn't tremendously bothered that I didn't find out the answer to all of these things. I enjoyed my 15 minutes or so in this house enough.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
As much as I hate dwelling on the concept of tropes, Slasher Swamp is an old school (i.e. all puzzling for puzzling sake, sparse prose, several schtick mazes, scores of instant deaths, no UNDO) adventure in which you find yourself a witness to a nonsensical mishmash of slasher film tropes after your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It’s a Windows application with the TADS engine under the hood, and the author proffers a small command set which can be used to clear the whole thing. I mapped the game and played to completion in about an hour, but I have to admit I achieved this by brute-forcing the content of locations. And there are a lot of locations.
The prose is a mixture of the atmospheric, the overdone atmospheric, the jokey and the juvenile. It's a tone that will be recognised by anyone who’s played any old school games which indulged their authors.
I mildly enjoyed ticking off the scores of discrete images and moments I recognised from horror films I’ve seen, but they're assembled in this game with no overriding design and no consequence, and thus to little effect. Most objects go unused, including conspicuously important-looking ones. The player has no direction or purpose other than to keep throwing themselves at everything until they can win by a kind of exhaustive attrition of props and puzzles, though there are few puzzles in light of the size of the map. The forest mazes are small but tedious, and the random deaths are numerous, and truly, deeply random.
The worst symptom of the disabling of UNDO is that from any of the scores of rooms with teleport-like one-way exits, you can’t go back. I would often save the game just so that I could try each of the four exits from a room without having to circle the entire map after each teleport.
In the end, Slasher Swamp has all the shortcomings of both old school senselessness and aimless design. The world is the base for something decent, but the hodge podge of blood'n'excrement scenes aren't woven into any specific gameplay content. They’re just there, usually described to you and then gone again all in the space of one move, unrelated to each other, unrelated to progress in the game.
In spite of Slasher's shortcomings, I still got moderate amounts of fun out of throwing myself at it for an hour.
Baluthar is a fantasy-horror adventure set on a world which has been invaded by the Ivarns, a destructive and technologically advanced race. While this setting informs the events of the game, it does so from quite a distance. The game itself is really about a father following his missing son down the horrible dungeon in the well outside their hut. You play the father, and must first drag yourself out of bed after reading a heavy, non-diegetic quote from the book of Ecclesiastes.
The construction of the sense of the greater world in Baluthar is impressive. The game physically presents just a very specific part of it, but through the ruminations of the character of the father, and through scenic features like paintings and through the anthropology of the game's rather horrible monsters – which are lovingly described – a strange portrait of the whole begins to emerge. I see that the game was criticised upon its release for not letting the player venture out into that whole, but this element didn't bother me. The game's achievement is the grotesque inventory of creatures and weird artefacts it delivers in the space of a single dungeon: a child-ghoul, rooms awash with rivers of fist-sized corpse beetles and a half-alive skull embedded in a laboratory wall amongst them.
Getting around these creatures and overcoming hostile magic are the subjects of the game's puzzles. They aren't too complicated, and there's a completist hint system built in if you get stuck. The writing is vivid, certainly purple at times, overloaded with too-long sentences and prepositions, but given the intensity of the content and the shortish duration of the game, the style does not outstay its welcome for what it's doing. It is also clever in building up the world mythology out of little strokes and asides distributed throughout the prose.
The parser itself is the weak point. It just isn't honed enough to deal with some of the more obvious ambiguities of player intent in relation to the game's content. Baluthar was the author's first game, and programming up the interactions is his obvious site for improvement. But as a fantasy puzzle game with a horror-leaning aesthetic, it is self-contained, imaginative and satisfying.
The game potentially doesn't follow up on the existential weariness expressed in its opening, but I'm not sure. After it was over, I found myself thinking about the way the character of the father had been expressed. Weary at first, single-minded in his quest to find his son, wordless by the end. Perhaps it was the ASK/TELL system, implemented rather feebly in Baluthar for communication between the father and son, that left a querulous feeling on this front.
Vlad the Impaler is a grim and incredibly bloody choice-based adventure set in Istanbul in 1452. After choosing to play as the explorer, soldier or mage, the player is tasked by an old friend – one who seals his letters with a big red V – with saving the city from a blight of natural and supernatural corruption.
With its character classes, small array of stats and its karma meter, the game aims for replayability over linear depth. Concentrated initial plays may last from 45 to 90 minutes, and there are considerably more encounters available across the finite map of locations than are accessible in any one session. The presentation is lush, with a fixed colour palette of black and white with red highlights, an inventory of expressive pencil drawings of the characters and locations and brooding loops of string music in the background.
The PC is written as a major force in this world of atrocious crime and madness. In almost anything you try to do, you will succeed, or have a solid chance of succeeding – at least for a good part of each game. This may sound like a recipe for boredom, but the high volatility of the encounters and the oppressive atmosphere of Vlad ensure quite the opposite. There is a sense that no matter how many amazing things you do in the city, no matter how many individuals you save from being violated, sold into slavery, murdered or torn apart by monsters (and you tend to tear the bad guys apart yourself) that you're up against too much evil for one person. This feeling is reinforced by the great despair evinced by most of the NPCs about their situation. They also regard you with an awe that inspires heroism, or at least perseverance.
The writing is mostly pointed and effective. It's also especially vivid in a lot of cruel scenes, but this content is balanced by a moral weight. The PC isn't heedless, nor are the citizenry of the cursed city. The characters discuss what's happening, why it may be happening, where does evil come from – without or within? The sense of these ideas is well conveyed through the whole dark aesthetic of the game.
The prose does suffer from bizarre technical variability, though. The strong focus and flow of the majority of it makes me wonder how it could also flop sometimes into great spates of overpunctuation (!!!?) and why there are phases where commas or semicolons just vanish, leaving a bunch of run-on sentences. It's as if half of it was proofread and half wasn't, or different people wrote different stretches in isolation. This didn't hamper my enjoyment overall, but did make me wonder how it happened.
What a greater number of players have been concerned about is the lack of continuity written into a lot of the encounters. You might see an option to 'Ask someone to translate the runes you found earlier' when you don't remember finding any runes. It becomes apparent from the prose that the scope of the actions you're taking in the city is assumed to be greater than just what you read during the course of a playthrough; you're a powerful figure achieving a lot off-screen as well as on. So if you take this attitude that a richer sense of all your character's doings will build up over repeat plays, you'll be okay, but I can appreciate this as a valid point of criticism against the game for many players, given how attentive Vlad is to mechanics in other areas, and that some players will just never accept being given so many shorthanded summaries of things they've 'done'. I personally felt the positive value of the game's approach in that it gives the PC's doings a breadth and depth that would be hard to effect if every single part of them had to be explicitly played through in a game of this length.
The trick of Vlad is working out what your stats are for and how they're affected by your handling of encounters. You can see your stat values and you can see when they go up and down, but 'die rolls' are not displayed at times when they're relevant, nor is it indicated when those times are. The game's structure is that of a broadening fan of encounters you can visit in almost any order you choose, followed by a narrowing into a gauntlet of situations in which deadliness to the PC increases significantly.
I found the whole game tremendously engaging for several playthroughs, but paradoxically, once I'd worked out how the stats figure into major events, the replayability factor the game pushes for weakens a lot. Too many critical moments in the game are either predictably easy, or so hard that it feels pointless trying to reach them again just to have another chance to roll a really high number on an invisible die. If you're killed, your saved games within the current play session die as well. So the weakness is that every game eventually becomes a stat test against the 'gauntlet' section, and you have to replay the whole game to get back there.
There are a lot of other tricks and secrets I can't elaborate on without spoiling, as well as a pile of Steam achievements to be had for people who like that sort of thing. It's just that these elements don't add up to the solid replay model the game seems to promise at the outset. However, by the time I'd come to these conclusions, I was already more than satisfied with my experiences in this dark and bloody world.
The relative explosion of H.P. Lovecraftian text adventures occurred in the non-commercial period of IF dating from the 1990s and onwards. It might have happened irrespective of all external factors, but because Infocom released The Lurking Horror in 1987, that game is an obvious landmark. I was therefore a little surprised to find an earlier example in the form of 1984 Eamon adventure The Tomb of Y'Golonac. This game exhibits most of the qualities of the later Lovecraft games – reverence towards the subject matter, wide-ranging knowledge of the author's made-up mythologies and a competent or better pastiche of Lovecraft's writing style, liberally sprinkled with words like 'loathsome' and 'unwholesome'.
Being Eamon, this is Lovecraft done as a kill-em-all-before-they-kill-you explorathon, but Tomb's writing is decidedly above average for an Eamon. It creates an underground world of dank corridors and weird landscapes, and is capable of generating suspense about what dangers may lie ahead. A plethora of weird stains, evil smells and inexplicably dreadful feelings mark the corridors. While this atmosphere is likely to impress a new player, numerous harsh gameplay difficulties become apparent as one spends more time with this game and, unfortunately, they stop it from being fun in the end. Y'Golonac does have cause to be hard. As Pat Hurst pointed out in his review of the game back in the day, it reproduces the core aesthetic of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, itself a logical extension of the implications of Lovecraft's stories. That aesthetic consists of players having an incredibly low survival rate due to them being frequently smitten by the powerful and unknowable horrors from other universes encountered during play.
It's easy to make an Eamon hard in a thoughtless kind of way: Just give the monsters massive stats and pack the map with unheralded instant death rooms. In Eamon's time there was a degree of competition to make 'the hardest Eamon ever', and I don't blame people for trying to achieve this using the relatively limited toolset which was available. Eamon evolved pretty quickly during the 1980s, and later versions of the engine (6 and 7 especially) gave authors the ability to do more sophisticated stuff. Y'Golonac is a version 4 Eamon which mostly hacks the player down using a combination of big-statted regular monsters, super monsters which can kill with one blow and hard-to-avoid instant deaths. The SAVE command is locked and a cave-in prevents players from escaping back to the Main Hall if they want out early. The kicker, once all of these features are in place, is that 90% of the game's secret doors aren't clued at all, and can thus only be found by walking into every wall in every room. The map of 90+ rooms has been slyly arranged to maximise the difficulty of making real progress and the player who discovers the nature of the secret doors after a long spell of vigilant mapping is likely to feel as great a deflation of their spirits as I did.
For its atmosphere and quality of writing alone, The Tomb of Y'Golonac is a remarkable Eamon. It's also significant for being one of the earlier Lovecraft-themed text adventures around. However, the standard of unreasonably difficult play the game adheres to is most definitely of its time. I enjoy the challenge of discerning and hacking out the path through some of these harsh old combat adventures, but Y'Golonac is meaner than even I can stomach. I lost count of the number of times I died, restarted, missed exits or cheated without success (cheating with BASIC hackery is an easy and common tactic in Apple II Eamoning). Eventually I broke out the Eamon Utilities disk and used the Dungeon Mapper program to look at the parts of the game I hadn't been able to reach or find on foot. So while I don't regard Y'Golonac as worth completing for bragging rights, it is worth sampling for those interested in Cthulhu mythos text adventures, especially those interested in actually fighting Lovecraft's grotesque monsters rather than just imagining that they might be slithering about nearby. Y'Golonac doesn't become insanely difficult immediately, but those things which are good about it are present immediately.
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